San Francisco 49ers

'He’s an issue for teams': Why the 49ers zeroed in on Jerick McKinnon

San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, right, introduces the NLF football team's newest players, Weston Richburg, left, and Jerick McKinnon, during a news conference Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Santa Clara, Calif.
San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, right, introduces the NLF football team's newest players, Weston Richburg, left, and Jerick McKinnon, during a news conference Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Santa Clara, Calif.

Jerick McKinnon's numbers don't exactly add up.

The 49ers signed the running back to a big free-agent contract this week – four years for $30 million – after a season in which he averaged a ho-hum 3.8 yards a carry for the Vikings and scored three rushing touchdowns. By contrast, San Francisco's former lead runner, Carlos Hyde, averaged 3.9 yards an attempt in 2017 and had eight rushing touchdowns.

The numbers, however, didn't interest Kyle Shanahan, at least not initially. Instead he immersed himself in McKinnon's game film, and in his words, got "lost" in what he saw.

"There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do," Shanahan said Thursday. "Even though there wasn't a ton of it, you've still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. And whenever he did, he excelled a ton and looked very good at it."

Neither McKinnon nor the team's other high-priced addition on offense, center Weston Richburg, have played in an NFL system like the 49ers'.

Richburg's former team, the New York Giants, used a power-based rushing attack. In San Francisco's outside zone-running system, he'll be asked to move more in space, something at which the 300-pound Richburg – he ran hurdles in high school – should excel. Shanahan brought in a high-end center, Alex Mack, when he was the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator. He said he sees similar qualities in Richburg.

"I didn’t know a ton about him until I turned on the tape and it was as good as I’ve seen," he said.

McKinnon, meanwhile, mostly served as Adrian Peterson's backup in Minnesota and started 13 games when Peterson was suspended in 2014 and injured in 2016. That offense was geared toward Peterson's hard-charging, between-the-tackles running style. Shanahan said McKinnon, 25, has the toughness to be a starting running back – "This guy is violent, doesn't turn anything down," he said – but his role will be different with the 49ers.

McKinnon, who played quarterback, tailback and some wide receiver at Georgia Southern, had 142 catches in four seasons with the Vikings, and Shanahan said there are times when he will line up as a wideout for San Francisco.

"What is a huge bonus on him is when you talk about the pass game," Shanahan said. "When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams. I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run."

McKinnon said he felt that the 49ers offense was a natural fit and he noted what similarly skilled runners like Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were able to accomplish under Shanahan in Atlanta.

“I see myself doing those kinds of things," he said. "For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

After emerging from his film session, Shanahan said he did look at McKinnon's statistics and acknowledged they didn't match what excited him on tape.

"And you go back and you try to see why," he said. "I'm not going to get into all the whys, but I know the stuff we liked him on – if I could just cut up those numbers I think they would have been good numbers. But when you take the whole accumulation of things, I think they watered things down."

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